Dauncing (bright Lady) then began to be,
When the first seedes whereof the world did spring
The Fire, Ayre, Earth, and Water did agree,
By Love’s perswasion, Nature’s mighty King,
To learne their first disordred combating:
And, in a daunce such measure to observe,
As all the world their motion should preserve.
Since when they still are carried in a round,
And changing come one in another’s place,
Yet doe they neyther mingle nor confound,
But every one doth keepe the bounded space
Wherein the daunce doth bid it turne or trace:
This wondrous myracle did Love devise
For Dauncing is Love’s proper exercise.
About this poem
Introduced by a variety of writers, artists and other guests, the Scottish Poetry Library’s classic poem selections are a reminder of wonderful poems to rediscover.
Alexander Hutchison on ‘Orchestra’:
This is the point in ‘Orchestra’, a longish poem in the courtly love tradition, where Antinous, one of the suitors of Penelope (chaste and patient wife to the long-meandering Odysseus), has invited her to dance..
Penelope, taking a sensible line on cosmology, correspondence and the threat of innovation has just said:
My feete, which onely Nature taught to goe,
Did never yet the Art of footing know.
But why perswade you me to this new rage
(For all disorder and misrule is new) ..
That’s when Antinous goes into high persuasive mode: indicating that in fact “Love’s proper exercise” is perfectly in tune with the music of the spheres and Nature’s elemental design.
Penelope’s shaping of words in reply is conveyed with charming indirection (with a touch to modern sensibility perhaps of Roy Lichtenstein):
This sayd, the Queene with her sweet lips divine
Gently began to move the subtile ayre,
Which gladly yielding, did it selfe incline
To take a shape betweene those rubies fayre
And being formed, softly did repayre
With twenty doublings in the emptie way,
Unto Antinous eares …
Sir John Davies, a significant and controversial figure at the court of Elizabeth I, and then at that of James VI and I, wrote poems which sometimes got him into trouble, but were also a vehicle for preferment. His Epigrammes were seized and burned along with posthumous work by Christopher Marlowe. He also took a cudgel to a former friend, Richard Martin (the dedicatee to ‘Orchestra’!), in the court of Middle Temple while training for the law. However, his acrostic verses ‘Hymns of Astraea’, which all spelled out “Elisabetha Regina,” did him no harm; and James admired the skill and learning he brought to the philosophical and speculative ‘Nosce Teipsum’ (“Know Thyself”), embracing him and making him a favourite at their first meeting, having found out he was the author.
‘Orchestra’ is elegant and diverting, though its courtly love conceits may wear a little thin. Davies himself could mock them in other pieces. The poem is resolved quite happily – with compliments reflecting on Elizabeth once more. It certainly doesn’t recall that climactic section of the myth where Antinous is the first to take an arrow (in the throat) from Ulysses on his return.
As to Sir John Davies, having done great things for James in the Plantation of Ulster, he died of an apoplexy after a supper party, just a day before he was due to become Lord Chief Justice of England – his death foretold three years before by his loopy wife who had a passion for scriptural anagrams.
I select this fragment also to draw attention to the work of one of my favourite American poets, Theodore Roethke (1908-1963), whose centenary year was celebrated in 2008. Roethke was a fan of his Elizabethan counterpart, and his piece ‘The Dance’ in “Four for Sir John Davies” begins:
Is that dance slowing in the mind of man
That made him think the universe could hum?
The great wheel turns its axle when it can;
I need a place to sing, and dancing-room,
And I have made a promise to my ears
I’ll sing and whistle romping with the bears.
Stephen Spender observed how often in Roethke’s poems he seemed to be dancing: “There was never, one might say, such ungainly yet compulsive dancing, as in Roethke.” It’s true; but he had nifty and powerful and gainly moves as well. From the dark and joyous romp of “My Papa’s Waltz” to the amazing opening gambit of “I knew a woman lovely in her bones” (“She taught me Turn and Counter-turn and Stand”). From the magic of the greenhouse world of The Lost Son with “The tendrils turning slowly,/ a slow snail-lifting, liquescent,” to the swaying of love and the dying to God and the last lines of The Far Field, his final book, where arm in arm with William Blake – it’s bound to be Blake – “for love, for Love’s sake/ … we dance on, dance on, dance on”.
Alexander Hutchison’s latest book is Scales Dog from Salt (2007). Way back in the Pleistocene age he wrote a dissertation on Roethke, and for a number of years, by happy accident, lived up near Miracle Beach and Oyster River on Vancouver Island, the location for one of the long, beautiful meditations from Roethke’s The Far Field.
Read more about Alexander Hutchison